It is an article of faith in modern motoring that highways are good and dual carriageways are better. Slicing through hills, bypassing towns, drivers need do nothing more than keep their foot on the accelerator and aim for their destination. We’ve saved time but there has been a significant cost – an increase in the Great Divide between city and rural Australia.
Take the Hume Highway. Bypass after bypass has been triumphantly constructed. No more reducing speed for Mittagong, braking to a halt in Berrima, negotiating that hard left turn in Goulburn, or stopping for a wee in Yass at what a proud council employee once told me were the most used public toilets in Australia.
Instead, the city drivers cruise benignly by, the texture of rural life hidden from their gaze, secure in their belief that Australia consists of Sydney and Melbourne triangulated, if you must, by Canberra, with just a whole lot of unpopulated space in between.
One of the many crimes perpetrated by cars is separation from community. Remember when people in cities walked or cycled to places, nodding to acquaintances, chatting at the bus stop? When children dawdled to school in groups, and country travel meant a train ride and polite passing exchanges in the waiting room and aboard the train.
No more. Modern motorists can travel cocooned in their car, driving from garage to parking place, safe from random meetings with neighbours, from contact with strangers.
Hurtling down the Hume Highway, drivers risk little exposure to the world outside. And when they must stop for petrol or for food, there loom only huge highway-side multi-national complexes. Step inside one, turn your back to the view and you could be in any of a thousand such places. The food and the ambience are carefully contrived to remove any local taint, to ensure an international homogeneity.
Once highways went through towns. Cruising slowly down the main street you could check the cafes – is there a Paragon, an Atheneum, a Café de Luxe – and have time to make a selection: will it be the products of the local bakery, of the Greek café or a hamburger (with beetroot); and then make a modest contribution to the local economy.
Or you packed a hamper with a thermos, and studied the roadside for a shady Creekside picnic spot. Those spots are now under thundering overpasses or lying untroubled by passing traffic. The highway traveller flies along too fast to catch the cry, “that looks like a good spot for lunch”. Don’t bother. Even if you ventured to the next exit, you could never find the backroads to take you there.
Now I know many townspeople have heaved a sigh of relief that convoys of trucks no longer rumble through their towns. Locals can park, street trees can be planted, dogs can doze and children safely play alongside a main street reclaimed for town life.
But we highway-driving city-folk have lost exposure to the life of the town, now a mere signpost flashing by. We’ve lost the opportunity for the impulse to enjoy the quintessential country town experience – the stroll down Main Street, the search for a sign saying (and I accept various spellings here) “cappuccino”, idling in front of the real estate agent, studying local house and land prices, sitting in the local park, wondering what life would be like living in this town. Because this is what I love most about travelling.
I can’t pass through a town without choosing the house where I would most like to live, the aspect I like best. Without wondering what it would be like to work the day in that fine garden, then sit on that deep verandah watching the dusty sun go down. I wonder what shape my life would take, what friends I’d make, what experiences I’d have, how different my life would be. I wonder what it would mean to belong there, in that town. I think these thoughts where ever I go, be it France or rural Australia. It is my own modest excursion into multiculturalism.
Sydney and Melbourne seem closer to each other than to all the country towns in between. But there is great diversity and richness out there in the country. There are towns filled with history proud and ignoble – and with modest grace. Some are sorrowing at their losses, others struggling doggedly to survive. There is difference and commonality, a million sights to see and a million stories – stories about being Australian – to be told. But you’ll never know any if you stick to the highway with only another city in your sights.
Asa Wahlquist is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specialising in rural affairs.